Bloodshed and Three Novellas
Stories comes in all sizes, and writers continue to speculate about the differences between novels and their more modest kin:
What is the difference between a novel and a story or a novella? Not length (though some say length is the only difference), but maturation. The novel is long because it commences green and ignorant. The novel is long because it is a process, like chewing the apple of the Tree of Knowledge: it takes the novel a while before it discovers its human nakedness. The short forms are short because they begin with completion—with knowledge of nakedness.
These remarks of Cynthia Ozick’s are suggestive and helpful, but some stories turn out longer than others for a simpler reason. The 500 pages of Lisa Alther’s first novel, Kinflicks, for example, don’t all come just from chewing the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, they’re also evidence of another process, unlike the one Ozick has in mind:
She traced the sporadic noise to the fireplace, but by the time she got over to it the noise had stopped. She tried to pinpoint the quality of the noise—it was a cross between the whirring of locusts and the cawing of several hoarse crows and the rattling of a rattle-snake. Apparently the creature was insect, bird, or reptile. Unless it was mammal or amphibian.
The noise turns out to be made by some baby chimney swifts fallen from their nest. The author’s determination to tell us what the noise is not is characteristic of this novel, which is long because much of it is inefficient. This is not prose but gab run mad, the gab of a writer anxious to stuff every narrative cranny with something, relevant or not, that might seem entertaining to someone.
Kinflicks is also too long because the life and hard times of its young heroine are meant both to pose serious questions about life in general and to give us a satiric picture of contemporary America. Ginny Babcock survives high school in small-town Tennessee around 1960; she reluctantly goes off to a high-class woman’s college just outside Boston, but drops out to follow her radical lesbian lover into urban activism and then commune life in Vermont, supported by embarrassing but handy dividend checks from her father’s munitions business. When the “earth trip” palls, she marries a moronic snowmobile dealer and settles down for a while into housewifery and motherhood, only to undergo a ruinous initiation into Oriental mysticism by a flipped-out young army deserter. These flashbacks alternate with an account of a few weeks in the present, when she returns home, her marriage ruined, to watched her mother die of a blood disease.
Ginny’s history is often very funny, but the satire is too resolutely representative to seem very disturbing. Her bungled introductions to sex, by Joe Bob Sparks, the cloddish star halfback, and Clem Cloyd, the crippled town hood in his orthopedic biker’s boots, are told with a breezy specificity familiar to connoisseurs of sexy writing by women, without adding much to our understanding of high-school folkways. Her exposure to high culture by Miss Head, a glacial philosophy professor who plays Handel on the cello and abhors Nietzsche, relies too heavily on dialogues between Head and Heart like this:
During the opera, I developed a special sympathy for the poor dwarfs who were being whipped to shreds by the wicked Alberich. They were so small that his demands—that they mine minerals for him with their miniscule picks—were impossible to fulfill. Yet they struggled on faithfully and industriously. My heart went out to them. [Ginny springs from coal-miner stock, by the way.] I imagined that Eddie, had she been there, would have leapt onto the stage and started unionizing them. Beads of sweat were popping out on my upper lip as I strained with them in their agony.
Miss Head leaned over and whispered, “Notice the incessant recurrence of the dwarfs’ leitmotif, the ways in which its tonal structure hints at the futility of their attempts.
Nor is Edna (Eddie) Holzer, Ginny’s passionate radical lover who’s beheaded in a snowmobile accident, more than a cartoon figure. When poor Ginny suggests that their blighted communal garden might benefit from some agricultural technology Edna replies:
“Are you kidding? A power tiller? Are you out of your mind? You don’t actually want to patronize an economy that turns The People into interchangeable cogs in some vast assembly line, do you? You couldn’t possibly want to participate in a system of production that makes medical supplies with one hand and bombs with the other. I mean, that’s why we’re up here, isn’t it, to wean ourselves from that sort of hypocrisy, to become honest working-class people? Well, isn’t it?”
I’m sure that such moments are meant to sound exactly like the cartoons they are, but the pleasure of even subtle satire is usually inversely proportional to its length, and Alther’s does go on.
The restrospective episodes are told in the first person by Ginny, whose confusions never quite grow into suffering because of her own inescapable habit of flippancy, the habit that in the end saves her from destruction, as another voice observes: “Like most of her undertakings, her proposed suicide had degenerated into burlesque.” Though the flippancy never quite disappears, this other voice, which tells of her return to Tennessee and her mother’s death, is considerably soberer and better. There is dignity and wry truthfulness in Ginny’s struggle to keep the chimney swifts (if nothing else) alive and to respect the very vulnerable terms upon which her old school friends live their adult lives. The demonstration of how Ginny and her mother, in the midst of the appalling mindlessness of a real hospital, find some mutuality of interest and feeling in watching medical soap operas on TV seems to me affecting and even brilliant.
Kinflicks has as its epilogue a little Oriental tale, in which a scavenger, felled by the atmosphere of the street of the perfume sellers, is revived by a whiff of the filth he knows and relishes as life. The moral is that “if you remain attached to the few things with which you are familiar, it will only make you miserable, as the perfume did the scavenger in the street of the perfume-makers,” since death is a transition beyond everything we are accustomed to in life.
This seems confusing—the tale might just as well mean that unfamiliar things will make you sick, so you’d do better to stick to the garbage you know. And there seems to be a similar uncertainty at the center of this novel. Read one way, it says that Ginny needs to escape the ties of family, false lovers, and culture, which the book so vehemently ridicules, and that no effort at reconstituting herself—through sex, learning, politics, communality, marriage and motherhood, mystical transcendence—can quite do the job of dying, which from the opening sentence (“My family has always been into death”) has hovered over Ginny’s bright and brittle patter.
But the implied invitation to take her failed suicide as her final defeat clashes with a meaning which more thoroughly has engaged the novel’s energies. “The few things with which you are familiar,” the filth which (if you like) is living, are the source of the amusement and contempt, for the American Way and also for our easier rejections of it, which are Ginny’s (and this novel’s) most likable qualities. Lisa Alther has an honest talent for broad social comedy, and it’s the familiar, and forgivable, impulse to be “serious” that makes Kinflicks too long, too much more than the rude portrait of failed contemporary desires and enthusiasms it was in its power to be.
Dream Children, Gail Godwin’s first collection of stories, may disappoint or even dismay readers who admired The Odd Woman. My own admiration for that novel was a little uneasy; though Godwin can be eloquent and witty, her effects depend mainly on amassing incidents and thoughts, and her work can be ponderous and sentimental. In The Odd Woman the accumulation adds up, finally, even though it is not a continuously active or engaging book.
The stories, I’m afraid, expose further deficiencies that aren’t evident in the longer and denser novel. A number of them seem exercises in fantasy-making which ought not to be memorialized in hard covers—a rather coy rehearsing of Swift’s relations with Vanessa, Varina, and Stella (“Why Does a Great Man Love?”), a mawkish account of a woman’s gradual withdrawal from her affectionate husband and son, whom she rewards with a magnificent outburst of cooking, laundry, and “creative writing” before death claims her (“A Sorrowful Woman”). Godwin writes semi-surreal tales of women leaving home to observe their own life from an apartment across the street (“Nobody’s Home”), being abandoned temporarily or permanently by their lovers (“Death in Puerto Vallarta,” “My Lover, His Summer Vacation”), becoming a more than willing object of gang-rape in an airport VIP lounge (“Layover”). Some themes recur in these stories—dead children and lost lovers, female gigantism, sexual attraction to and damage from older men, writers constructing fictions out of life or life out of fiction or dreams—but Godwin’s use of the short story form doesn’t succeed in giving them clear meaning.
Godwin can be very good—and sometimes very funny—when she attaches her characters’ feelings to the conditions of their culture:
“I have to stop by the damn supermarket,” Gretchen’s mother said, “and you know, no matter what I fix he won’t be satisfied.” Her mother’s library books were digging into Gretchen’s rear so she restacked them, examining the titles: SF Nebula awards, a novel called Other Orbits with a dust jacket from one of Hieronymus Bosch’s more gruesome panels, and a book on the medieval mind…. She began to read. “You’re going to ruin your eyes,” her grandmother said through the rear-view mirror. Gretchen thought of Borges and Joyce and Homer and Milton and wished she could fall in love with a really good man. [“Some Side Effects of Time Travel”]
When she confines herself to relatively conventional modes, where inner feeling and outer circumstance each have their rights preserved, she does quite well, as in “False Lights,” a brief exchange of letters between a writer’s first and second wives, with very different ideas about what they do or don’t have in common. In “An Intermediate Stop,” a young British clergyman, author of a bestseller about his own mystical experience of God, finds a richer kind of beatitude while lecturing at a small women’s college in the American South.
The first and last stories in the book show rather neatly the limitations of this writer. Both concern apparently secure women living in the country north of New York City, one with a TV-producer husband, and the other with a playwright lover; but from these similar cases very different stories emerge. The first, “Dream Children,” explores the contradiction between the apparent contentment and serenity of its heroine and her habit of riding her horse much too recklessly, as if “she has nothing to fear anymore.” We gradually learn that she has immersed herself in the literature of psychic phenomena, that she’s been unable to have sex since losing a child in an obstetrical disaster, that she is visited nightly by the figure of a small boy the same age her own son would have been, a boy who, she decides, is quite real, lives in Florida, and comes to her in a sleepwalking dream of his own like the ones she remembers having as a child.